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America’s Public Infrastructure: A 2021 National Report Card!

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Roger L. Kemp
May 23, 2021

“Infrastructure” refers to basic facilities and installations necessary for society to operate, including public transportation and communication systems (highways, airports, bridges, telephone lines, cell telephone towers, post offices); educational and health facilities; water, gas and electrical systems (dams, power lines, power plants, aqueducts); and other facilities like prisons, national park structures and other improvements to real property owned by higher levels of government. In the United States, these components are divided into the public sectors (owned by municipal, county, state and federal government, and private sectors (There also are special district authorities such as the Port Authority of New York and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, among many others.)

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) is the only professional membership organization in the nation that grades our nation’s public infrastructure, recognizing and evaluating major categories: the “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.”

Managing and Financing America’s Infrastructure

All levels of government are facing a new era of capital financing and infrastructure management. Revenues that once were available for capital construction, restoration and maintenance have either diminished or evaporated in recent years as governments are subject to unprecedented fiscal demands for public services in an environment of limited taxation and dwindling resources. Some individual state government deficits are increasing and the federal deficit is ballooning. Meanwhile, portions of our national infrastructure that were adequate now are experiencing signs of distress or decay with no end in sight. Congested highways, deteriorating roadways, overflowing sewers and corroding bridges are constant reminders of the looming infrastructure crisis that jeopardizes our nation’s economic prosperity, as well as our residents’ quality of life and safety.

New infrastructure grades were published by the ASCE recently, and while the overall grade improved slightly from four years ago, there are few signs of improvement. The 2021 report card assesses the same categories as the 2017 report; grade comparisons are as follows:

Aviation – Received a grade of B- in 1988, and a grade of D+ in 2021.

Bridges – Received a grade of C+ in 1988, and a grade of C in 2021.

Dams – While not graded in 1988, this category received a grade of D in 2021.

Drinking Water – Received a grade of B- in 1988, and a grade of C in 2021.

Energy – While not graded in 1988, this category received a grade of C- in 2021.

Hazardous Waste – This category receive a grade of D in 1988, and a grade of D+ in 2021.

Inland Waterways – While not graded in 1988, this category received a grade of D+ in 2021.

Levees – While not graded in 1988, this category received a grade of D in 2021.

Parks & Recreation –While not graded in 1988, this category received a grade of D+ in 2021.

Ports – While not graded in 1988, this category received a grade of B- in 2021.

Rail – While not graded in 1988, this category received a grade of a B in 2021.

Roads – Received a grade of C+ in 1988, and a grade of D in 2021.

Schools – While not graded in 1988, this category received a grade of D+ in 2021.

Solid Waste – Received a grade of C- in 1988, and a grade of a C+ in 2021.

Transit – Received a grade of C- in 1988, and a grade of D- in 2021.

Wastewater – Received a grade of C in 1988, and a grade of D+ in 2021.

The ASCE reported that the infrastructure areas that had improved since 2017 benefited from local leadership, thoughtful policymaking and an investment of public funds in projects that generated positive results. These improvements demonstrate what can be accomplished when we commit to solving these problems. In the future, America’s public, private and nonprofit sectors must work together to set our nation’s infrastructure goals. Residents also should keep in mind that funding for these projects historically has been provided by federal and state governments—not local communities.

National Leadership Is Needed

While there is general agreement among policymakers on the magnitude and complexity of this problem, little agreement exists on how to solve it. We will need leadership from our federal policymakers and civil servants to make progress. It is only within a national policy framework that states, counties and cities can improve our public works facilities. This is too big of a demand for our local and state governments alone. Our federal government’s recent philosophy has been to let lower levels of government solve their own infrastructure problems. If we are to find a solution, our national government needs to become more positive and proactive, making decisions and approving the funding.

The Future

As these challenges become more severe and the price tag associated with postponing these decisions becomes more obvious, taxpayers may need to step in—but local taxpayers should not be expected to foot the entire bill. The majority of our country’s capital assets have been constructed over the past several decades—some more than a century ago—frequently with the assistance of grants from the federal government. Many lower levels of government do not have the financial capability, even with increased taxation, to adequately address these challenges. National priorities must be established for capital improvements at all levels of government, starting with projects that are necessary to ensure the public’s security, health and safety. Funds from existing federal grant programs must be redirected for infrastructure projects nationwide.

Our nation is not “on the road to ruin.” It merely is going through the transition period required to properly sort out and arrive at a politically acceptable long-term solution to this critical and complex issue. However, if our infrastructure is allowed to deteriorate even further, even to the point of “ruin,” the cost of resolving this issue will escalate significantly for everyone, at which point economic development programs also will suffer and we won’t have enough revenue to pay for it. I strongly urge President Biden to make restoring America’s public infrastructure a priority now. We cannot afford to wait any longer.


Author: Roger L. Kemp, PhD., has been a career city manager in CA, CT, & NJ. He is an author, editor, of nearly 50 books focusing on America’s cities, including their public infrastructure. He is a Distinguished Adjunct Professor, Executive MPA Program, Golden Gate University; and a Professional in Residence, Department of Public Management, University of New Haven. Roger is a graduate of the Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Email address: ([email protected]).

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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